Saturday, October 16, 2021

The Beatles, "Two Of Us" (Track of the Week)

I had a great day today. My wife and I took our kids into the city. We had a wonderful meal in Koreatown then went to Broadway to see Wicked, the first Broadway show for my kids. We were masked the whole time but it was still a sublime slice of "normal" fun after a year and a half of COVID. These are the kinds of days one cherishes.

This week also brought yet another release of The Beatles' Let It Be, a taste of the coming Peter Jackson doc. I put it on tonight after everyone else went to bed and the first song, "Two Of Us," resonated like never before. When it came out people thought it was about John and Paul, but it really describes a fun day Paul and Linda had together. It's a song about the quiet joy one gets when you've finally found the person you want to share your life with. Today for me was certainly a "four of us" version of that. 

Back in my teens and twenties John was my favorite Beatle. I admired his rebellion and wit, but later learned he could be an abusive drunk. My belief in the Lennon myth had been punctured, and so I gravitated to George. In my tumultuous thirties I admired George's deadpan taking the piss attitude. As I struggled to find a way post grad school and eventually left academia I identified with George's frustrations in the band. His first album, All Things Must Pass, is loaded with amazing songs and proof that his talents were not being fully recognized. Laboring in the halls of academe as tirelessly as I did with so little reward made this something I could understand so well.

Strangely enough, I have elevated Paul to favorite Beatle status in my 40s. This was mostly due to becoming a family man and learning about how much Paul prioritized his wife and children. Linda got horribly mocked for her amateur musicianship but I still find it touching that Paul always had her by his side on the road. This is a man who had his priorities straight. Family was always more important than rock star decadence. (It has also become clear to me that Paul was both the best musician and song writer in the band.)

"Two of Us" also reflected Paul's correct instincts that the Beatles needed to get back to basics in order to stay relevant. Dylan's Basement Tapes and the first Band album were signs that psychedelia had played itself out and there was a need to "get back." The song is stripped down, driven by acoustic guitar and Paul's always supple bass playing. In sound and attitude it's a million miles from the likes of "I am the Walrus." Lyrically it's just a plain ode to having a great fun day with the ones you love. We have so few such days in our short lives of toil that we have to cherish the sublime ones we do get on occasion. 

It has the repeated assertion "we're on our way home." My God it feels so good to have a home in this world. The biggest reason I left academia was the physical distance it put between my wife and I. Being together and starting a family was what I chose and I will never regret that. Days like today are why. 

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

My Strange Oughts Nostalgia

I have a long-standing theory that there is a 20 year nostalgia echo. In the 70s there were 50s movies like Grease and American Graffiti and 50s TV shows like Happy Days. In the 80s there was The Wonder Years and Vietnam movies. In the 90s there was Dazed and Confused and That 70s Show. So we are due for oughts nostalgia, even if the phrase itself sounds so alien.

It was a decade so indistinct that we weren't even sure what to call it. That's in part because of a major transition in the decade itself. On or about February 2007, to paraphrase Virginia Woolf, human character changed. The smartphone hit and the internet went at long last from an ancillary thing alongside day to day life to its ubiquitous center and the biggest conduit for entertainment. 

It had the effect of speeding things up and slowing them down at the same time. While it put communication of ideas and discourse into hyperdrive, people today dress pretty much the same as back then. (You would never think the same of comparing 1967 and 1981, for example.) This is why the 90s is the last true coherent decade in the way we started thinking about decades back in the "Roaring Twenties."

So maybe nostalgia for the oughts is impossible on the basis of it not even being a tangible entity. That being the case, I feel weird pangs for that time. It's mostly personal. I am a late bloomer and the oughts, of all times, ended up being my salad days. It's when I started my PhD program, met a lot of people whose friendships I still cherish, got a tenure track job, met my wife and got married. Related to the last point, I had figured out how to dress myself properly and make small talk. I was old enough to know some things about the world, and young enough to still enjoy it to its fullest. 

Beyond the personal level subjective stuff like this, one might question oughts nostalgia. This was the time of 9/11, government crackdowns, the Afghanistan War, the invasion of Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, and the 2008 economic crisis. How could anyone want to go back to the Bush Era?

Well the Trump years and pandemic have shown us things could get even worse than America under Dubya. In any case it looks like we are doomed and as the 2010s are worse than the oughts the 2020s will likely be even worse than that. Nowadays what I once thought unbearable seems quaint.

At base I feel like there is something we lost in that fateful circa 2007 transition. We went from blogging to Twitter and Facebook, from long, deep essays to bon mot tweets and all their snark. (This blog itself is a kind of relic, one I am not willing to part with no matter how much it makes me look like a guy in 1983 with a Beatle haircut.) The internet had been this strange, rich haven that soon became corporatized and dominated by social media. 

The late 2000s saw the first Marvel movies, a transition toward a one note Hollywood churning out blockbusters and blocking out more mature art. The high point before this came in 2006 with the release of both No Country For Old Men and There Will Be Blood. Both films are masterpieces, and both seemed to distill the decade's dark realization of America's imperial decline. 

As one of a dwindling number of rock music fans I can also look back to the oughts as that genre's last and moment of cultural relevance. Back in 2001 everyone was playing the Strokes and White Stripes. The whole "the band" thing wasn't so much a genre as the last distinct rock movement to hit the mainstream. Since then it's either been lame nostalgia or great stuff that's buried left of the radio dial. That was the decade that brought file sharing and burned CDs, and with it the culling of record stores. Its true symbol was the iPod, a harbinger of much more to come and maybe the best device ever invented to deliver music. It also happens to be completely obsolete, a true artifact of an era with no name.

So it could be that the oughts represented the last moment of the culture existing outside rather than inside the internet. A time when you had no clue of the reactionary political opinions of someone you once knew in your hometown because there was no Facebook to throw it in front of your eyes on a constant basis. Perhaps this century's oughts will seem like the last century's, a time before a new modernity stripped away part of our humanity. In the meantime, I'll crank some Wilco.

Tuesday, October 5, 2021

Primal Scream, "Loaded" (Track of the Week)

Let me tell you children about a time when I hit adolescence, a time I call the Reagan Dusk. From about 1988 to 1991 the promises of the dayglo decade were beginning the get stale but conservatism held on. The old emperor himself was revealed to be a senile old man tied to a horoscope. Communism collapsed to be sure, but anyone who was honest about the situation understood that American bluster had little to do with it.  Instead of a peace dividend there was AIDS and crack.

If you were a left of center young person politically and culturally back then it was hard to find a home. MTV still cranked atrocious hair metal. Guns N Roses were the one bright shining hard rock band of note, but their misogyny and homophobia were hard to overcome. Over in Europe you saw the Berlin Wall coming down and the world "waking up to history" as that Jesus Jones song said, but America seemed deader than a doornail, at least in terms of mainstream culture.

While MTV blasted hair metal shite they had a couple of key exceptions: Yo! MTV Raps and 120 Minutes, both a Godsend to someone like me living in a pre-Internet rural area. Here's where I heard new music that actually excited me. It was a golden age for rap music, but in terms of rock the great "Smells Like Teen Spirit" the great breakthrough hadn't happened yet.

If you were into what they called "alternative" before it was mainstream, it meant UK stuff. It meant wistfully staring out the window to The Sundays' "Here's Where The Story Ends," writing Smiths lyrics on your school notebooks, and sniffing around the dance-y rock style known as "Madchester."

Now Primal Scream weren't from Madchester, they hailed from Scotland. But despite their origins in the dark moors north of Hadrian's Wall they nailed the sound down. They sounded as if Brian Jones had risen from the grave and listened to a stack of Happy Mondays records. "Movin' On Up" was their closest thing to a hit in the US, mixing 60s spirit and melodies with 90s beats.

That may've been the big song, but in a week like this, when I'm beat down and exhausted, I listen to "Loaded." It starts with a sample from the biker exploitation flick The Wild Angels where Peter Fonda says he wants to be free, but also wants to get loaded, and to have a party. The thing is, he says it with a kind of subtle aggression in his voice, as if so much needs to be purged from his body in Dionysian ecstasy. 

The song itself ambles along baggily like someone strolling down the street swinging their arms with a head full of chemical sunshine, not a care in the damn world. That's a lovely feeling to evoke when the day at the rat race has you down. During the Reagan Dusk reviving hippie tropes wasn't just nostalgia, it was a form of protest against the dominant culture of consumption and workaholism. We never quite managed to root that garbage out of our most deeply cherished social practices. In the meantime I will just turn this song up and have "a real good time." 

Sunday, October 3, 2021

The Consolations of Philosophy

In April of 2020, in the midst of the pandemic's shutdown phase, a student at my school asked if I would read some Nietzsche with him, since he heard I had some philosophy background. (It was my co-major as an undergrad.) In those days, with personal interactions so curtailed, I went for it even though I was drowning in work at the time. (This is the conundrum every teacher faces. The only way to do your job well is to work well past your contracted hours. But if you work well past those hours it gets draining and makes it easier for your employer to exploit you.)

It was a great experience, and out of that he started a student philosophy club that I oversaw. The club got very high attendance, despite the fact that it had to survive the ravages of the pandemic and hybrid meetings. I asked the students if I should offer a philosophy class, they said yes and I obliged. (Again, I am a sucker for my students.)

After co-majoring in philosophy as an undergrad I had mostly left it behind in the ensuing years. In a little bit of kismet I started getting back into it right before that student asked to read some philosophy with him. A friend gave me a book about Stoicism for Christmas in 2019, detecting the slide in my mood at the time. When the pandemic hit I decided to read the dang thing and started to realize what I had been missing for so long. 

It was the exact right time for philosophy to come back into my life. When quarantine began and the dangers of the disease were unknown, and as it absolutely ravaged my state of New Jersey, I took an inventory of my life, and asked myself if I was prepared to die. At its most fundamental, this is the question philosophy forces us to answer. I had been spending so many years on the hamster wheel of work as a teacher and parenting that this important question had been forgotten.

Since dipping back into philosophy I have gained a needed sense of perspective about what matters, and what doesn't. As much as I can I have been cutting myself off from the bullshit that stands in the way of a meaningful life. I am not so concerned any more about my status, for example. I have distanced myself from things that drain me, like the drama on local Facebook groups and political disagreements with friends and family. When group texts devolve into endless kvetching I just mute them or turn off my phone. I don't finish watching a TV series on streaming just to finish it. If it's mediocre or just drops in quality I let it go. Listening to music while I read a good book usually gives me far more pleasure. 

I still work beyond my contracted hours, but with more limits. For instance last week my school had its back to school night for parents, meaning I worked from before dawn to past 8PM. On the evening the next day I sat down to get a head start on some grading of papers my students just handed in, and I stopped myself. It could wait another day and still be done in a timely fashion. I sat down and watched Barry Lyndon again instead, a film that reveals more and more with each viewing. When it was over I felt happy and content and energized. 

And when I do my work, I do it with a greater sense of purpose. I know that as a teacher what I do matters, and that I should center that in my practice. That deeper meaning of my work is something I no longer take for granted; most people in modern capitalism can't really say their job does anything of much lasting value. I don't think I have had a single day in the classroom this year when I felt like I was just going through the motions. My re-immersion in philosophy has meant a revival of my sense of intentionality. My main goal in life right now is not to lose it to the ravages of middle-aged despair and cynicism. 

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

America's Estates General

I have been reading Mike Duncan's excellent new Lafayette biography, which has been especially good at seeing the French Revolution from the angle of a pro-Revolutionary yet anti-Jacobin nobleman. Reading the drama of this even again I also remembered the oddity of the Estates General, called by Louis XVI in 1789 to sort out France's financial difficulties.

It had not met since 1614 because the kings of France had maintained such a tight grip on power via the construction of the absolutist monarchy. This medieval representative body included three groups voting as blocs: the clergy, the nobility, and everyone else. It was an obviously undemocratic system meant to prevent the commoners from wielding real power, and soon the third estate and revolutionaries from the other two formed a national assembly to write a constitution.

Going back to when I learned about this in high school I had always laughed at the crown trying to gain legitimacy in a changing, modernizing society through such an institution. I have stopped laughing, because I have come to realize that the US Senate as an institution is hardly less farcical.

Wyoming getting the same representation as California is just as ridiculous as the nobility getting the same number of votes as the commoners, isn't it? Just as the Estates General did not in any way represent the majority, the Senate is split down the middle despite many more votes in Senate races having gone to Democrats. Of course, the majority (once counting the vice president) still doesn't even get to govern due to the filibuster. Like royalists clinging to the traditions of kingly authority when it had long lost its luster with the people, the filibuster is being preserved by Democrats who are more invested in the symbols of a dying, dessicated system than they are in paving the way for a more democratic and beneficial future.

Ironically the American Estates General could in fact lead to the kind of collapse the original was called to avoid. Congress needs to raise the debt limit, but with Republicans blocking it via filibuster and feckless Democrats like Manchin and Sinema refusing to budge, our government could default not due to extravagant spending on palaces or foreign wars, but simply because our system is being taken hostage by a radical minority that the majority simply refuses to stop. 

Reading about events like the French Revolution is a reminder that things do not have to be as they are, and that events and the world can radically change in ways that are impossible to predict. In 1783, after a successful war against Britain, the French monarchy looked to be the strongest in Europe. Its palace at Versailles put all others in awe. Ten years later the king was beheaded, a republic established, and Notre Dame cathedral transformed into the Temple of the Supreme Being. 

Nothing says that the United States is going to be the world's great power in ten years, or that it will even continue to have this form of government, or even exist as a unified country. I get the feeling that we are sitting atop a volcano. Interesting times, indeed.

Sunday, September 26, 2021

Gordon Lightfoot, "Early Morning Rain" (Track of the Week)

This week brought the autumn equinox, heralding six months of more darkness than light. The beautiful weather we've had these past few days has helped obscure this depressing reality. As I grow older I abhor winter more and more, less for the cold and more for the darkness. The lack of sunshine certainly has a negative effect on my mental state. It doesn't help that my work schedule means waking up before the dawn and getting home when the sun is setting come wintertime.

However, as I have aged I have also delighted more and more in the changing of the seasons. When I lean into it I am far happier. I don't just change the clothes I wear but the food I eat, and even the music I listen to. Just as I went apple picking last week and baked a cobbler, I am back to listening to folk music after a six month hiatus. I seem to listen to it little between March 21 and September and to imbibe it religiously between September 21 and March 21. 

The association does not come from folk music itself, which can be plenty sunny. I think it comes from when I first took a deep dive into it. I had moved from Illinois to western Michigan, and picked up a Gordon Lightfoot compilation on Rhino. In Michigan winter comes early and already in October the winds suddenly went from cool to chilly. I would take long walks listening to the album on my CD walkman (it took a year to modernize to an iPod), the first song being "Early Morning Rain."

It's the story of a wanderer, stuck outside on a cold rainy morning pining for home warming his body and deadening his emotion with liquor. He's watching the airplanes take off and land at the airport, hoping for deliverance. It's a sad song but underneath there's a youthful liveliness, a sense of spirit that the narrator is going to be able to carry on for another day despite having a bad one this day. (After all Lightfoot wrote this early in his career.) 

I buy the occasional CD these days to have music in my old-ass Honda Civic (which lacks a modern entertainment system) and last year got Lightfoot's complete early recordings. This was a song I played a lot as I took my children to daycare in the morning before returning home to an empty house to teach over my computer. The spirit of carrying on amid depressing circumstances in this song helped me get through the day.

With the coming winter dark and the present reality of my daily commute's return, this song is still a balm for my soul. I also get comfort from embracing the changes in the seasons. Despite everything terrible in the last year and a half the world keeps turning, life goes on, and I am glad to be living it.

Sunday, September 19, 2021

Why The Afghanistan Papers is Essential Reading

As the United States finally left Afghanistan, America's news media acted as if President Biden had prematurely ended a successful occupation. I had followed the conflict for all of its twenty years, and this framing seemed as mendacious to me as the "Saddam has weapons of mass destruction" water-carrying the same media did back in 2003. 

This framing emerged from the fact that the military and political leadership of this country has been obsessed with claiming victory despite reality, and the establishment's media stenographers are incapable of admitting that they traded access for the truth. If you want the truth, read Craig Whitlock's The Afghanistan Papers.

It is not a long book and every page is a revelation, but it has taken me time to finish. Each chapter is so full of horrific revelations that I just have to put the book down. Based on what I've read, the war was already lost in 2002. Al Qaeda was neutralized but bin Laden was still on the loose. The US shifted to a nation building mission with little to no understanding of the country, and deprived that mission of resources as it ramped up preparations to invade Iraq.

All the while the CIA had war criminal warlords on its payroll, men who murdered prisoners and raped civilians and had been so horrible in the 1990s that Afghans welcomed the Taliban as the lesser of two evils. The US military kept killing civilians, making permanent enemies of the population by doing things like blowing up wedding parties then initially claiming the dead were all terrorists. To claim to bring "democracy" and peace under these circumstances was a sick joke and the relatives of the dead weren't laughing, or willing to see the United States as their friend.

Under Bush as well as Obama and Trump the Defense Department attempted to build an Afghan army in America's image in little time, a wild social experiment that was doomed to failure. The way that army melted away at the end of the war tells the tale. Insane amounts of money were misspent on development. The infrastructure failed to meet the actual needs of the Afghan people and resulted in rampant corruption that undermined the very government the United States was propping up.

It is impossible to read this book and conclude that the Afghanistan adventure was anything other than a bloody farce. Whitlock is able to draw on primary sources from the government where public officials and military figures are being candid, instead of feeding pablum to the press. It's obvious they thought this was a failure years ago. 

Much like in the aftermath of Vietnam, the people responsible for the failure are trying very hard to deflect the blame. To avoid a repeat of the misbegotten war in Afghanistan, that must be stopped. Read the book, and recommend it to others.